The likely brutal and audacious murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi has created a real pain-in-the-ass situation for the poor organizers of this year's Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
The people tasked with programming, catering and housing all the powerful billionaires and lowlier millionaires at "Davos in the Desert" are left with empty halls, emptier hotels, and way too much food. The list of last-minute regrets keeps growing with Jamie Dimon, Larry Fink, Steve Schwarzman, and almost every other major American financial institution publicly stating that this is a particularly bad time to be photographed glad-handing in "The Kingdom." So deep and total is the roster of people pulling out that the FT is now keeping a chart. Even Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi (who runs a company that is essentially Saudi-owned at this point) is taking a powder on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Cotillion in the Sand.
The whole thing has turned into something of a poisoned political chalice, a PR layup for the financial elite, and even a showy moment of bullshit moral superiority for Silicon Valley titans who need Saudi money like the earth needs the sun. In fact, the only place still debating the optics of publicly embracing MbS after he reportedly had a Washington Post columnist chopped up to pieces in a Turkish consulate and flown back to Saudi Arabia in multiple bags, is the Trump White House. The president has hemmed and hawed over the whole Khashoggi affair, being as openly venal as even Trump can be and giving some credence to ridiculous conspiracy theories about the murder. Trump's White House had been almost inert on this whole deal until Mike Pompeo arrived in Riyadh today and had MbS call Trump to say that he didn't do it, nobody saw him do it and you can't prove anything.
Trump seems to be totally cool with that explanation, so now we have a preemptive answer to this super-fun "Will he/Won't he" mystery from the other day...
The disappearance of a Saudi dissident journalist has put Steven Mnuchin, the United States Treasury secretary, in an increasingly tenuous position as he prepares to attend an investment conference in Riyadh next week.
Several top Wall Street executives have pulled out of the meeting, but as of Monday, Mr. Mnuchin still planned to attend. President Trump, speaking at an event in Georgia, said Mr. Mnuchin would make a final decision on whether to participate by Friday.
Guess what, kids? He's totally going! And why shouldn't he? Things here are hardly going swimmingly here at the moment, and it's not like Steve Mnuchin will be burdened by his morals on his long flight to Riyadh, because Steve Mnuchin is morals-free. It's his fucking brand.
Mnuchin, who was actively supporting Hillary Clinton for president when he basically wandered into a Trump event in midtown Manhattan, got brought up on stage by The Donald and ended up as Treasury Secretary, is now owning the tax cuts that he said would result in massive deficit shrinkage. They're...not doing that.
There's also the matter of a small corporate bankruptcy that's in the news. Sears, which is essentially owned by Steve's BFF and former business partner, Eddie Lampert, is going tits-up very slowly and very publicly. In one of the week's more unintentionally hilarious moments, the president himself commented on the Sears bankruptcy, saying that the retail giant was a sad case and that “It’s been obviously improperly run for many years and it’s a shame.” Where the funny comes in is that Mnuchin sat on the Sears board for more than a decade, right next to his college roommate Lampert, departing only to take up his role at the Treasury Department, which he is...well, running.
And perhaps even Donald Trump sees the optics of that. A public failure rubbing some stink on the guy he chose to be the mouthbreathing face of American business. In fact, the only other person that Trump might be more disappointed in right now (Jeff Sessions and Eric aside) is Dina Powell.
Dina was supposed to be the next UN Ambassador, helping him out and showing loyalty by returning to TrumpWorld from Goldman Sachs and providing Jarvnaka with the Trojan horse they need to go back to NYC and still look like they're doing something powerful. But now Dina is saying "no thanks," because she's too smart to be the face of an administration that detests globalism at an institution built to foster globalism. That kind of disloyalty is Trump's bête noire, and worthy of punishment and as luck would have it, Dina is the lone Goldman mucky muck still on the guest list in Riyadh. What's a more fitting way to fuck with her than to send Weirdo Steve-O over there and make Dina try to avoid his creepy smile and odd attempts at conversations in empty conference halls, her only other option for conversation being listening to Masayoshi Son drone on about "The Singularity."
Those are enough reasons to pack Mnooks off to The Kingdom, but we have one more for the still-unconvinced:
We feel pretty strongly [based on our decades of geopolitical diplomatic experience] that MbS is poised to do something pretty fucking loony when no one shows up at this party. Mnuchin would be far and away the most high-profile American in attendance and therefore the guy sitting across from the Crown Prince in some gilded hall for a perfunctory press conference. Who better than Steve Mnuchin to be the guy that sits there as MbS talks about a long and strong alliance with the US? Making increasingly unsubtle indications that he is now convinced he can do whatever he wants with no retaliation from the most transactional president in modern history.
Imagine Mnuchin's contorted face trying not to look totally bizarre as he starts to realize that MbS is off-script, giving a verbal middle finger to the west, and then turning a sweet smile on Steve, thanking him for attending and announcing that he has a gift for his American friends. Now picture his face as a large box is delivered to a gold table in front of him while a truly sinister smirk appears on MbS' face.
Mnuchin sits frozen as MbS urges him to open the box and cameras are heard to click over the din of reporters starting to murmur excitedly. Mnuchin tries to keep his mouth from doing that super-weird thing it does, but he's rooted in place now, eyes bulging behind his Transition Shades as he hears the prince's voice say "Fine, I will open it."
Now hear the high-pitched gurgle of panic as Mnuchin tries to stop the whole thing a moment too late, the crowd gasping, his arm flying out and his body rigid, captured forever in the picture soon to be blasted out around the world. The severed head of a dissident being waved in the face of the US Treasury Secretary by an ally who knows money talks and flagrant human rights abuses walk.
Steve Mnuchin is going to Saudi Arabia, you guys, and it's going to be a shitshow.